A common response.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

The Characters Aren't Real. Your Rage at Them Is.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I admit it: I’m the sort of “Star Wars” geek who’s intrigued by the suggestion sweeping the Internet that Jar Jar Binks might have been the secret bad guy. The theory began in a complicated Reddit post, and has since gone mainstream.

Why am I so intrigued? Why are fans of “Game of Thrones” so angry at the thought that Jon Snow might actually be dead? Why are fans of “The Walking Dead” beside themselves over the apparent demise two episodes back of Beloved Character Whom We Won’t Spoil Things by Naming? None of these people exist. Why, then, do we become so emotionally engaged in their fates?

To help answer the question, I went to Blakey Vermeule of Stanford University, a professor of English and author of the excellent monograph “Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?” There Vermeule combines cognitive theory, history, social psychology and a touch of Darwin to suggest that without fiction, we would have trouble making sense of the world. Narratives bring order to what we see around us, and characters put faces to what we learn.

To be sure, the stories Vermeule has in mind are mostly classic literature, and we’re talking here about pop culture. Still, she was kind enough, via e-mail, to answer a few questions, and she provides a truly intriguing theory:

“I think this widespread fascination with fantasy shows that we do not in fact live in a secular age, rather we live rather amazingly in an age of shimmering enchantments, of heroes and villains and Gods and monsters.”

She’s noticed, in other words, that fandom’s deepest engagement seems to be with characters facing zombies and Sith Lords. She adds:

“That these worlds are fictional and that we know them to be fictional is quite beside the point: the human brain is extremely easily fooled into believing things are true, often viscerally, even when we know in some rational sense that they are not.”

Lest one think that she is here speaking only of the effect of fiction on our brains, Vermeule provides an example that should leave us uneasy:

“A friend reports that he recently toured a virtual reality lab at Stanford. The simulator made him think he was standing on a plank over a ravine -- nothing he could say to himself could convince him to step off the plank, even though he knew perfectly well he was standing on carpet in a lab.”

Why does it matter what clever cognitive scientists can fool our brain into thinking? Because scientists are not the only ones who can do it: “Fiction makers have gotten astonishingly good at defeating our rational override switch.”

They can pull this off, says Vermeule, because their creations “prime some deep religious intuitions and give them a habitation in a world that has grown so deeply skeptical and materialistic and wary of ideals.”

In her book, Vermeule contends that even stories we know to be invented help fulfill a need for narrative connection that may be wired into us. We can understand the world better when we can embed its various characteristics in a tale. But the tale, to work, has to offer personification. This was true in the days of ancient myth and is true now. It may be that our identification with the characters leads us to believe we’re on the track of important truths.

So in our encounters with fiction, we’re nevertheless searchers. We spend emotional energy on characters because we can pursue these deep truths even if they’re absent from our reality. This, says Vermeule, is a good thing: “We should absolutely delight in the power that fiction makers (in any medium) have to transport us into other worlds and involve us so mightily.”

We should. The problem is, too often we don’t absolutely delight. Instead, we absolutely lose our tempers. “Game of Thrones” fans are angry at the thought that Jon Snow might be dead, and desperate for evidence that he isn’t. “Walking Dead” fans feel the same way about Beloved Character. And “Star Wars” fans -- well, that’s an often eccentric group that cares so intensely that every line of dialogue is worth parsing to get the answer.

But the furious response to storylines we dislike isn’t new. In the 18th century, Vermeule says, the novelist Samuel Richardson was deluged with letters of protest once readers realized that he “was going to allow his virtuous heroine Clarissa to die after being raped by the villain.” In more recent history, she reminds us, “Sopranos” fans have yet to forgive the show's creator, David Chase.

I asked Vermeule why we get so angry. Here’s her answer:

“Fiction rather uniquely primes our moral intuitions, our sense of right and wrong, of good and bad, of fair and not fair. When we suspect that justice is being thwarted, we want to lodge a protest -- and the protest is a deeply moral one, against the unfairness of outcomes.”

We’re so caught up in the narrative that we demand right outcomes, just as we do in life. We’re not driven by affection for characters alone, but by our desperate need to see justice done ... somewhere. And, yes, we should be able to tell the difference between illusion and reality, and adjust our emotional involvement accordingly, but we can’t:

“Again this is our emotional brain overriding our rational kill(joy) switch, appealing to the Ref even when we know there is no Ref. All of these impulses can be seen in a pure form in children and to the extent that we have carried them into our adult lives, it is cause for celebration, to fight against what Wordsworth called the shades of the prison house that close upon the growing person.”

Perhaps, then, we should be happy that we care so deeply. Whether we’re furious about the fate of Beloved Character or demanding the truth about Jar Jar Binks, our anger about characters who don’t exist isn’t evidence that we’re disconnected from reality. It’s evidence that our moral sense is intact. In a world as complex as this one, that’s surely a good thing.

  1. Which explains the huge following of, for example, this website.

  2. For what, you ask? For this.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net